My Favourite Movies of 2012

by M.J. Hearle

2012 was maybe the best year for cinema since 1999, which saw the release of modern classics The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty and my personal favourite Being John Malkovich. Sure, there were a few stinkers like Battleship and Ghost Rider (which even crazy old Nic Cage couldn’t save), but there were so many other quality releases that it was easy to ignore them. What follows is my rambling attempt to encapsulate the best movie experiences I had during the year. You won’t find a top ten list or anything so formal, however in the interest of establishing some kind of hierarchy I give you my two favourite films of 2012: Looper and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Despite being completely different in terms of subject matter and aesthetic, both films left me with the impression that I’d witnessed something special.

Let’s start with Looper.

Before going into the movie I had incredibly high expectations. The internet buzz was considerable plus I’d thoroughly enjoyed the director’s (Rian Johnson) previous films Brick and The Brothers Bloom. It was precisely because of these high expectations that I was a little nervous. Cabin in the Woods, another much buzzed about film, had left me deeply disappointed earlier in the year and I was worried Looper would do the same. In the end, Johnson’s film didn’t live up to my expectations. It wildly surpassed them.

Ostensibly a time travel flick, Looper is far richer than any one sentence logline can suggest. It’s a science fiction action film, an existential drama, a black comedy, a neo noir, and a love story. More than anything Looper is just plain fun. Here’s a scattershot selection of some of the things I loved: Joseph Gordon Levitt’s make-up, Bruce Willis’s soulful eyes, the clever way telekinesis is introduced as a throwaway joke and how it pays off later in the story, malfunctioning hoverbikes, the blunderbuss, Jeff Daniels eloquent crime lord, lo-fi time travel special FX, the shift in pace when Joe gets to the farm, a montage showing Joe age through the years, the crop droid, disappearing limbs, Old Joe’s hilarious time travel paradox brush off, that creepy little kid, Emily Blunt hiding in the safe, the cornfield standoff.

The Beasts of the Southern Wild is an entirely different cinematic experience but no less powerful. Set in The Bathtub, a lush bayou cut off from modern civilisation by a levee, Beasts follows a six year-old girl named Hush Puppy as she tries to find her place in a world both heartbreakingly beautiful and bleakly terrifying. Beasts operates as a social commentary, documentary-style examination of a marginalized community, magical realist fable and traditional adventure film, – sometimes operating at these levels all at once – but never feels pretentious or heavy. Instead, the movie has a lyricism about it, a fragility that left me deeply moved. I cried often during Hush Puppy’s journey, and one particular line haunts me still (‘This is my favourite thing’). It’s a testament to the strength of a film if a single scene lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled. Beasts of the Southern Wild contains many such scenes.

There was probably no movie as heavily hyped this year as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, yet while Looper managed to excede the expectations placed upon it, Prometheus sadly stumbled. Alien is one of my all time favourite movies so to say I was looking forward to Prometheus is an understatement. Unfortunately, even I couldn’t overlook the rampant stupidity of the plot which had supposedly smart characters acting with reckless abandon (yep, sure, pat that scary space cobra on the head; okay take off your helmet on an alien planet before conducting an atmosphere analysis). Nevertheless, it is such a beautifully shot film and is so successful at evoking an atmosphere of dread that I still consider it a success. Plus, it has Fassbender and Fassbender is awesome.

A film I enjoyed with far fewer reservations, was Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. I don’t think it’s the best thing he’s ever done – that would be The Royal Tenenbaums – but it was sweet and affecting. Bruce Willis is even better in this movie than he is in Looper, giving the gentle, vanity-free performance movie stars rarely attempt and Anderson’s handmade aesthetic, while no longer fresh, is still effective after all these years.

From one Anderson to another, P.T. Anderson’s The Master might not be as explosive as There Will Be Blood, nor as vibrant as Boogie Nights, but it is unmistakably the work of a director at the height of his power. Unapologetically idiosyncratic, the movie traces the relationship between two very different characters, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Pheonix), a burnt out soldier battling with alcoholism and PTSD, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic founder of a scientology-like religion called The Cause. While Hoffman is great, it’s Pheonix who steals the show, playing a man at war with himself and everyone else. While Anderson’s filmmaking craft is as always sublime, the movie is a little too obtuse for me to love as much as his previous flicks. However, I’d recommend checking it out if only to see Pheonix’s searing performance. The Best Actor Oscar has his name on it.

One film that won’t be nominated for any Oscars, but one I had an absolute blast with was John Carter. The critical buzz was so poisonous that I almost didn’t bother watching it but I’m glad I did as the swashbuckling sci-fi flick proved to be delightful surprise. In my opinion, it was a much more enjoyable blockbuster than either the The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises. Blasphemy, I know. Could it be superhero fatigue that left me ambivalent about these popular releases? Rather, I think Nolan said everything he had to say with the The Dark Night and was just spinning his wheels with this third entry. And The Avengers, well – Hulk was cool – but I could care less about the rest of the movie. Who were the bad guys again? The best superhero film of the year was Josh Tranks Chronicle.

With nary a superhero to be seen, Ruby Sparks was a little seen gem that I found surprisingly powerful. It’s a movie about a screenwriter who wills into existence his idea of the perfect girl and the relationship that ensues. What starts out as a whimsical fantasy eventually transforms into something much more serious, exploring questions about the way we idealise and seek to control those we love. Some of the conclusions drawn by the film hit uncomfortably close to home, and made me reflect on my past relationships. This is the quirkiest, most insightful onscreen love story I’ve seen since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Less highbrow but no less enjoyable, The Woman in Black, was a great throwback to the atmospheric spookfests of yesteryear. At it’s best, the movie feels like a waking nightmare, with it’s winding shadowy corridors and dreadful apparitions. You couldn’t get me to spend an hour in the movie’s deeply unsettling mansion much less a night, so I applaud Daniel Radcliffe’s steely resolve. All those years battling supernatural beasties at Hogwarts must have paid off.

Finally, here’s a list of movies I haven’t seen but which I suspect might have made it into this post: Holy Motors, Cloud Atlas, Sleepwalk With Me and Sinister.

Disagree with any of my choices? What were your favourite movies of 2012? Feel free to comment below.